28 November 2010
Once again, Ryan Bingham spent an entire year being the most talked about man in Americana. Not only did he become probably the first alt.country singer with this own Oscar, which he rightfully won for this year's most beautiful song, The Weary Kind; he also put out his third album, the dark masterpiece that was Junky Star. In this exclusive interview, Americana UK spoke to 2010's finest gravel-voiced troubadour about hanging out with Willie Nelson and Jeff Bridges, working with T Bone Burnett and why it's always best to stick with the first cuts.
You're touring with Willie Nelson at the moment. That must be one hell of a situation to be in?
Yeah man. You know, I've been listening to Willie Nelson since before I could walk, so it's amazing being out here with him.
There's this old saying in the music business that you spend your entire life making your first record, but only a couple of months making the second one. But what about the third album? What happens there?
It's funny you say that. I think it took about six years to make my first album, and a couple of days making the second one. I've been writing songs for about ten years, and you get better at making records as you go along. It didn't take us much more than three days or so to get this one done.
Three days? Most artists spend more time just working on guitar solos!
It was actually really nice. I had written the songs over the past year, and we had been playing them live a lot. So when it came down to recording these songs, the band knew them really well. We were in a great environment to record music in, there weren't really a whole lot of distractions. We could just go in there and concentrate on the music, and this time, we had a better vision of how we wanted this album to sound and where we wanted to go with it than we've had before.
Junky Star not only sounds darker than Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun, it also sounds like more of a folk record than a country record. Was that intentional?
Much of the intent was to just get back to the song. When I first started writing and performing, I didn't have a band. It was just me on stage with my guitar, and I really just wanted the songs to stand on their own, by them selves without a whole lot of production and stuff going on. We're only four guys in the band, and these are the guys who go out and play with me night after night, day in and day out on the road. They work really hard, so I wanted them to be on the record.
Roadhouse Sun was probably the nearest you've come to recording a rock n'roll record. How soon after did this underlying need to slow it down a bit show itself?
Well, I don't think I actually thought about it until a few months before I went to the studio. I'd been working on some of these songs at home, and had also recorded them there with my acoustic guitar, so I could give them to the guys and they could learn them. I actually really liked how these demos stood on their own with just the guitar. That was it, there wasn't a band or anything. And I didn't want that to change too much, I didn't want to change that vibe. So when we sat down to record them for the album, we pretty much played them the same way I had when I made those first recordings.
Three albums in, how do you think you've grown as an artist?
I'm learning how to say what I want to say a little bit better with every album I make. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel like I've become better at reflecting, you know, going back over my older songs and thinking how I could have made them better. Just trying to figure it out, you know!
Junky Star was produced by T Bone Burnett, the go-to-guy of Americana music these days. What was it like working with him?
It was great, man. That guy just brings the best out in me. It's really inspiring working with a man like T Bone. He's as professional as can be, and it was great being in a studio without any distractions, just being able to focus fully on the music. I really need someone who can create that comfort zone in the studio. Some of my songs can be very personal, so you don't really want a bunch of people you don't know and aren't comfortable with standing around in the studio. It can be very hard bringing out those emotions when there's a bunch of strangers there. But T Bone really created that vibe and that place where you can just let that stuff come out.
You once told me that you do a lot of maturing on the road, and since you've done a hell of a lot of touring over the years, how do you think your approach to being a musician has matured?
You know, it's been about ten or eleven years since I first picked up the guitar and started writing songs, and since then I've toured all over the world and met a lot of different people in different situations with different opinions. It makes you grow up, and it influences you when you write music.
How did you decide on the title for this record?
Well, it doesn't have anything to do with being a junkie or anything. It's more about something that's rough on the inside, like an old classic car that's rusted on the outside, but there's still something on the inside that's special about it and makes it run. I think, from traveling around the country and seeing the state it's in, you know, it's kinda rough out there. People are struggling, but there's still something on the inside that makes them run, if you know what I mean. I think this album is about the struggles.
You won an Oscar for the song The Weary Kind from the Crazy Heart film. It's a bonus track on Junky Star, but do you think you would have written this song if it hadn't been for your involvement in the film?
Yeah, I think so. When I got the script from the director of the movie, Scott (Cooper), and he asked me about writing the music, I think it was a coincidence more than anything. The music he wanted me to do, well, I was going in that direction anyway, so it felt natural to me.
You also play your own part as the main character Bad Blake's backing band in the first scene of the film. What was it like being around Jeff Bridges?
He was great. He was there every day, and T Bone set up this kind of songwriting stand where everybody would meet and sit around and talk about the characters and the music. And Jeff was really involved in a lot of that stuff. He had a lot of ideas, and he's a great player and singer as well.
So now you're probably the only Americana artist with his own Academy Award. What was it like suddenly being in the Hollywood spotlight, doing all these different interviews and being right in the middle of this success?
I'm just glad I made it through it all alive! Everything happened so fast, and it was really overwhelming and crazy at the time. When you're in the middle of it, it's difficult to sit back and enjoy it, but once it's all over and you've moved on, you suddenly realize what that movie actually accomplished.
So what did you do with the actual statue?
Haha. I think I just put it on a shelf somewhere.
What do you think Crazy Heart says about the state of country music in 2010?
Well, the music that we play would never have gotten out there if it hadn't been for that movie. It really created an opportunity for music to get out there. But to answer your question, I think it says a lot of about the state of country music today. There's a lot of old country, folk or rock around that could appeal to wider audiences, given the chance.
From your own perspective, as a relatively young songwriter I suppose it's also great seeing this gap between the old and new generations in country musicians becoming increasingly smaller?
Playing in Texas where I also grew up, you see a lot of these characters roaming around, playing in bars and all over. We were up in Oregon recently playing with Willie, and there must have been 5.000 people in this outside venue in the pouring rain. Willie played for over two hours and everybody just had a blast and partied in the rain. It was really inspiring to see a 77-year old guy get out there and play a sold out show in the cold rain for two hours.
Ryan Bingham's Junky Star is out now on Lost Highway. The Crazy Heart soundtrack is out on New West. For more, go to Binghammusic.com